Science as Autobiography: The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne. Thomas Söderqvist. Translated by David Mel Paul from the Danish edition, Hvilken Kamp for at Undslippe (1998), and then abridged and revised. xxviii + 359 pp. Yale University Press, 2003. $40.
Both before and after he finished writing this life of the Nobel Prize–winning immunologist Niels Jerne, Thomas Söderqvist published essays in which he reviewed his own book, calling it "an existential biography," a "biography à la Plutarch" (by which he means a life seen as an ethical lesson) and a new way of writing the history of immunology. It is a highly unusual biography, and not only for the world of science: Its intimacy is startling.
Söderqvist spent 10 years in close communication with Jerne and with Jerne's huge archive of papers—manuscripts, letters, scraps, tickets, lists—detailing the whole of his life from adolescence onward. These were collected and filed by Jerne himself, in the expectation that his life would eventually be the subject of just such an intimate biography, or perhaps an autobiography. He wanted intensely to be unusual: Where some prepare themselves to meet their Maker, Jerne seems to have prepared himself all his life to meet his biographer. Curiously, the biographer did not like him, a fact that came to trouble Söderqvist deeply.
Jerne and his theories appear widely in general materials on the history of immunology and in contemporary discussions of the field. His work bridges the gap between the serological standardization of the 1930s and the new cellular biology of the post-War period, and Söderqvist deals very well with the science. The standardization of immune sera, such as antidiphtheria serum, was key to the immunology of the inter-War period, and it is good to see it given due emphasis here.
The interest in this book lies in the braiding together of a life and work. "In contrast to most biographies of scientists, which inevitably focus on scientific work and public achievements and leave the rest of life (if treated at all) at the periphery, I have chosen to place Jerne's life in the center," Söderqvist says in his introduction. He is thus entering new biographical territory, he notes, adding, "I call this territory existential biography." A recurring theme is the feedback between Jerne's emotional experiences and his scientific work. This kind of illumination is more often focused on poets than on scientists, whose work is conventionally supposed to be free of interfering affect.
The centerpiece of the book, an unnumbered chapter near the middle called "The Selection Theory as a Personal Confession," is a digression from the chronological account of Jerne's life. It opens with a quotation from Nietzsche, one of Jerne's favorite philosophers, to the effect that "every great philosophy up till now has consisted of . . . the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography." In this chapter Söderqvist teases out the threads of the ideas and theories about immunology that were available to Jerne. Söderqvist begins with the then generally accepted template or instruction theory of antibody production, which accounted so neatly for the body's uncanny ability to produce antibodies tailored against any of the infinite number of possible antigens. Its opposite was the much older selection theory of Paul Ehrlich, which posited a preexisting antibody for every possible antigen.
This, as many people were soon to point out, was very much what Jerne was now proposing—that an antigen selects from a range of antibody configurations the one that fits it best. He called this a natural selection theory: The most fitting antibodies were chosen from a random population. Jerne claimed that when he came up with his proposal, the thought of Ehrlich never entered his head, and Darwin was no more than a distant echo. Jerne also rejected the suggestion that he had found the idea closer at hand, in the work of statistician and population geneticist R. A. Fisher, author of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930). Jerne liked to maintain that his theory was entirely his own: It had no influences or ancestors.
A source of insight that did come from his own experience of serum standardization was the observation that as immunization proceeds, the avidity of antibodies (the attraction they have for their antigens) increases. If antigen did act as a template, increasingly avid antibody would be less and less able to free itself, and antibody production would be choked off—but of course this is not what happens. In addition, he could point to the presence of spontaneous "natural" antibodies in the serum of unimmunized animals. These features, the older theories coupled with Jerne's experience at the bench, could be said to be enough to account for his natural selection theory of antibody production, and here most historians would have stopped.
But Söderqvist does not stop here. He goes on to suggest that Jerne's preference for preformed antibody had a personal dimension: an "emotional a priori" that chimed with Jerne's own view of his relation to the outside world. Jerne's theory reflected his romantic understanding of himself as an unusual individual, unaffected by society, refusing to be dominated by an intrusive other. There is no external template that forces the formation of a matching antibody: The organism itself has all the antibodies it needs. The antigen only reinforces a stimulus that the organism has itself produced. Jerne accepts the theory with no hesitation: Nature reflects the depths of his own soul, as he wrote in a letter to his wife. The theory had come to him in a flash of intuition one night in Copenhagen as he was walking home from work.
Söderqvist says that Jerne never resisted inquiries into private, even intimate parts of his life. He seems to have liked the idea of a coherence between his life and his art. After reading a draft of Söderqvist's discussion of the relation between his personality and his selection theory of antibody formation, Jerne told the biographer that he was fully in favor of the idea that his scientific theories had autobiographical traits.
This is an outstanding book: It is insightful, methodologically new and really quite riveting. When it appeared in Danish in 1998, the reviewer for the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet called it the best nonfiction book of the year. What more can I say?—Pauline M. H. Mazumdar, History of Medicine (Emeritus), University of Toronto